The VR training missions helping our government

While virtual reality technology was pioneered by a handful of gaming-based enterprises and startups, the VR space has recently expanded to include commercial applications like real estate. Even beyond that, VR has applications in the training and government space, and that’s exactly what Jason Starkey, COE and co-founder of Jedburgh Technology, is pushing forward.

ABERMAN: Well I assume that the place we should begin is: what exactly is virtual reality?

STARKEY: So, virtual reality has actually been around very long time. It started in the 1800s, where they created these stereoscopic devices that would allow the user to see two separate, two dimensional objects at the same time, one for the left eye, one for the right eye; and when it does, it just creates this illusion of depth for the user. So, that same fundamental technology has been around a long time. Today, it’s gained a lot more momentum, because now we’re able to put computer-animated images in front of those two separate two-dimensional spaces, now that we have computer animation to play with it.

ABERMAN: And effectively, my understanding is you’re using it to create basically virtual environments that look exactly like somebody would experience in the field. Tell me a bit more about how Jedburgh, I mean, how does a virtual reality environment make make training more effective, for example?

STARKEY: So the best training environment is in the actual live environment, overseas, in country. That is what will always be the best place to train. But we don’t always have the luxury of training in that environment, for obvious reasons. It’s dangerous to train there, and it costs money, and takes time away to travel to that location. And so, what VR is doing is, it’s just replacing that real environment with a virtual environment, so it gives the user, or the trainee, a new place to kind of operate and train in a digital environment, rather than going to the actual live environment.

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ABERMAN: I know that Facebook and others are talking about, or plan on using virtual reality to help friends hang out. How’s your business different from that?

STARKEY: So Facebook bought Oculus a few years ago, and they made a big play on VR being a commercial play. It hasn’t gotten the momentum that Facebook and a lot of other investors had hoped. Where it has gotten momentum though, it just hasn’t gotten as much attention, is in the enterprise space. So, virtual reality is actually taking off tremendously among enterprise customers and that’s our play area. I mean, we consider the government as an enterprise customer.

And so, within the government, they’ve been leading user of technologies forever. I mean, everything has sprung out of the government. The Internet began as ARPANET a long time ago, and again, the government is investing in these new innovative technologies for itself, that I think will be used for commercial space down the road.

ABERMAN: You served, and I think that’s an important point, because you served, a lot of initial customers are people like yourself. Give us an example of how you Jedburgh’s using virtual reality right now to help people, and help our soldiers in the field.

STARKEY: So I was a Green Beret for about 10 years. I still serve in a National Guard capacity, and it is mandatory for Green Berets to learn a foreign language. And there are certain tasks that we have to do with that foreign language. For example, you have to be able to describe a person, you have to do these fundamental practical skills that that operator will use in real life downrange. And so, learning language in the military for 10 years, it was very difficult for a lot of people, and so we saw a pain point that we could tap into by using VR.

We could augment and enhance the current language learning infrastructure that is within the military. So right now, they have a very robust language learning infrastructure in the United States government, whether it’s intelligence community, law enforcement, military, they have a language learning school with real instructors, and you go in that classroom and learn with that instructor. The problem is, for a lot of military people, it’s boring to sit in a classroom for 12 hours a day, eight hours a day. And so what we’re doing is just giving them the instructor and the student a virtual environment to rehearse those same learning objectives that they’re learning in the classroom, in a virtual environment

ABERMAN: Which means that the teacher can be here, and the student can be someplace far, far away.

STARKEY: Yeah. There’s other value propositions too with the product, in that you know, maybe you’re deployed downrange. Six months at a time, you still have to be expected to speak that language when you come back, but you can’t take your language instructor with you downrange. And so, what our platform does enable the instructor and student to do is to continue to train and practice those same skills, even when they’re not located in the same physical location.

ABERMAN: It seems to me, just before I let you go, your company is a great example of how our local tech businesses often get started: begin with a government customer, and find a commercial application. Do you think that entrepreneurs give this path enough credit?

STARKEY: No. I mean, it’s daunting at first to think that you’re going to get into government contracting, and to get that contract. It takes a lot of effort, a lot of legwork. But the fact is, the government is a ripe customer, who is thirsting for new technologies and unique applications. And all it takes is, really, someone with with a good insight on how to apply those technologies for different government customers. Once you learn the ropes, the government’s more than willing to throw a lot of money to seed fund your initial technology, to the point where it can mature enough to where you can actually take it to other markets. So, it’s a great application, and I encourage anyone to follow through it.

ABERMAN: So, as you look towards the future for a technology like yours, where are some of the commercial markets you think this could really be useful?

STARKEY: Really, where there’s any soft skills type training. And so for example, when a medical doctor has to communicate bad news to a patient, that mental doctor needs to have the training to establish that rapport and empathy with the patient, before they deliver the bad news. They can’t just come in and say, I’m sorry, you have cancer. They have to develop a relationship with the patient, and say certain keywords and terms to do it with the patient first. And so, this is an example of a way that I think our underlying technology can help other commercial markets.

ABERMAN: Well Jason, I really appreciate you taking the time today. It was great hearing about Jedburgh, and we wish you lots of success in the future.

STARKEY: Thanks, Jonathan.

ABERMAN: That was Jason Starkey, co-founder and CEO of Jedburgh.

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